Austin districts, subdivision, mall, UT campus change over 25 years
Austin has seen significant growth in the last quarter of a century, especially in these areas.
Nate Chute, Austin American-Statesman
An updated design for Austin’s multibillion-dollar Project Connect transit plan calls for removing vehicle traffic from the Drag – a popular and well-traveled stretch of Guadalupe Street along the western edge of University of Texas campus – and essentially making the area open only to people who are walking, biking, riding a bus or using the city’s planned light rail system.
Peter Mullan, the chief of architecture and urban design for the Austin Transit Partnership, said that between increased public transit options and improvements to key intersections, making such a change wouldn’t leaded to increased traffic elsewhere in the city.
Mullan and other members of the Austin Transit Partnership, which manages Project Connect, presented the updated design for the Drag to the community at a town hall Tuesday evening. The updates are based in part on community feedback, Mullan said. His goal was to hybridize the two previously presented designs and to solicit more feedback to incorporate into the next version.
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Project Connect was presented in 2020 as a generational opportunity to remake Austin’s mass transit system. The plan calls for two light rail lines, a downtown Austin tunnel and multiple new bus routes. The plan also includes housing funds, equitable development planning and more city park-and-ride options.
Austin voters approved an 8.75-cent increase to city property taxes to help pay for the project in 2020, although more than half of Project Connect’s cost is expected to be funded by federal grants. The price tag was originally projected to be about $ 7.1 billion but project leaders recently announced that the estimated cost had jumped to over $ 11 billion, citing inflation and changes to the design.
The project will take years to complete. The Orange and Blue line light rail lines – the Orange line would run along the Drag – won’t be in service until sometime around 2030. Some projects, such as two MetroRapid bus rapid transit lines, will come online much sooner as they were already under development before Election Day.
The new design
Mullan said the goal of the Drag design is to move as many people efficiently through this corridor as possible, keeping in mind the particular needs of university students, professors and staff who use the area. The street will include a light rail line down the middle and expanded space for pedestrians, bikes and buses.
The Drag, which extends from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to 26th Street, for decades has been a popular gathering place for UT students and other visitors. It includes a number of retail shops and restaurants.
“The Drag is obviously one of the really iconic spaces of the city of Austin,” Mullan said. “We’re bringing this new mobility infrastructure, but as we do that, how do we actually leverage that to really enhance the experience of the drag so that it is both a place that functions from a mobility perspective, but also a place that people want to be? “
Tuesday’s meeting was intended to showcase two versions of the new Project Connect design for the Drag: One in which buses drive on the light rail guideway and another with a lane that buses and cyclists share. Both of these options were modeled in other cities, Mullan said.
“We’re proposing a configuration that really maximizes and optimizes the pedestrian and cyclist environment and also has the capacity to incorporate buses into this idea of a ‘transit mall,’” he said. “We maintain the necessary bus service to the Drag because that’s usually important while also providing facilities for cyclists and pedestrians to make this a place that really supports all modes of transportation and maximizes throughput of people through the streets.”
Several participants at Tuesday’s community meeting raised concerns about bikes and buses sharing lanes, as opposed to a dedicated bike lane.
Caitlin D’Alton, a program consultant at Austin Transportation managing, said each version has trade-offs. The partnership will have to look at whether buses and the light rail can coexist without disruptions to service, while any bus and bike combo lane would have to be carefully designed to ensure efficiency and safety, D’Alton said.
Others in the community also have concerns about a carless Drag. Mike McHone, acting president of the University Area Partnership neighborhood group, told the Statesman he and his group oppose removing vehicle traffic from Guadalupe Street.
“We want to make sure that there is no diversion of through traffic into the neighborhood where we have all the high-density projects that have been built,” McHone said. “We think the light rail can be designed to accommodate the neighborhood and not be a situation where it diverts existing traffic that is using Guadalupe Street as a cut through.”
McHone said another priority for his group is ensuring that there are separate throughways for pedestrians, compared to bikes and scooters, which is reflected in this plan. He said he wantsto make sure businesses and other organizations in the area can continue to function.
“We want to make sure that there is adequate ability to service the businesses that exist in the neighborhood,” he said. “We have probably 10 different religious institutions in this really small area. All of them have weddings and funerals and things that have to happen.”
Travis Simons, a Universty of Texas student, said at Tuesday’s meeting that he is in favor of removing cars from Guadalupe in this area.
“For us students it’s mostly something to walk up, down or across and it would be much better without cars,” he said.
More: Project Connect plan could force out Dirty Martin’s, an Austin institution
Moving more people through
The changes to the Drag area are projected to dramatically increase how many people can move through the area each day, according to Project Connect officials.
The current street can accommodate about 6,470 people an hour northbound via vehicle, walking, bikes, scooters and public transit. A previous design that maintained a car-only lane would have allowed about 19,250 people per hour to travel northbound. The transit-only option is projected to be able to move 21,160 people northbound per hour.
Removing the vehicle lane would allow the design to include wide sidewalks, a separated bike lane and trees for shade, which Mullan said was important to community members. The sidewalk would be wider on the west side where retail and restaurants attract more visitors.
Mullan said the cost of the Drag portion of Project Connect has not been broken down separately, but said this portion of the design is not expected to have a wide variety of cost options.
“We’re working with a predefined area. That footprint isn’t changing. It’s really just about where we put all those within that footprint, ”he said. “In terms of thinking about the design of this area, I don’t think cost is going to be the determining factor.”
There have been concerns raised in the community about how this portion of the project will impact several local businesses, mostly between 27th and 29th streets where the road is much narrower. Mullan said the updated design does not change the businesses that are expected to have to move to accommodate the light rail system.
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One of those businesses, Dirty Martin’s, has been owned by Mark Nemir for decades and sits on land valued at $ 1.4 million, according to the Travis Central Appraisal District. Nemir told the Statesman in April that he hasn’t had discussions with the city about a potential payout amount should he need to move the business. He said he intends to fight for to stay on his current property and has received public support.
“Where are we going to go?” Nemir said. “I’m in a pretty good spot down here right by the University of Texas, and I’ve been here for 96 years. And there’s some wonderful things going on down here. “
Mullan said he understands the transit changes will create a difficult situation for the impacted businesses and said he is trying to communicate with them as much as possible.
“We have a lot of sympathy for businesses that are going to be affected by this,” Mullan said. “We have a long way to go before we get into construction, to make sure that we have really good strong lines of communications to address what is admittedly not the best situation for those businesses.”
Several people at Tuesday’s meeting voiced support for Dirty Martin’s and the other impacted businesses.
What comes next
Mullan said the updated Project Connect proposal goes beyond what was required in the 30% design documents for the Drag, which is a milestone in a big project like this one. However, the design is not complete and the team plans to continue to ask for public feedback and incorporate it into the process, he said.
Mullan said he is excited about the vision this design presents for the Drag – a place with people out and about and enjoying the amenities the city has to offer.
“We’re able to actually create places for people with all these different modes of transportation in this one space. I think this will be an incredibly dynamic, vibrant place to be, in addition to providing safe ways to move through it, ”he said. “This is our community, we have got to create places where we are going to be and spend time.”